Drugs and Alcohol Addiction

Unlike traditional psychiatry, which rarely looks at the brain, Amen Clinics uses brain imaging technology to identify which of the 6 brain patterns of addiction you have, so you can get the most effective treatment.

What are Drugs and Alcohol Addiction?

Addiction, also known as a substance use disorder (SUD), involves the harmful use of illicit drugs, prescription medications, and/or alcohol. Addiction occurs when habitual use of a substance or multiple substances changes the way the brain experiences pleasure. Brain dysfunction is the #1 reason why people fall victim to addiction, why they can’t break the chains of addiction, and why they relapse. Addiction ruins lives and devastates families. People who abuse drugs or alcohol are more likely to get divorced, less likely to graduate from high school or college, less likely to get promoted at work, and more likely to develop physical diseases related to their addiction. Addiction also puts you at greater risk of suicide or dying from an overdose. Sadly, more than 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.

Who Suffers from Addictions?

Substance abuse (like behavioral addictions) can affect anyone—you, your spouse, your child, your best friends, your neighbor, your coworker, your plumber, even your doctor. If you or a loved one is suffering from alcohol or drug dependence, you’re not alone. The latest statistics show that drug and alcohol abuse (also called substance use disorders) affect:

  • Nearly 1 million adolescents ages 12-17
  • 5.1 million young adults ages 18-25
  • 13.6 million adults ages 26 or older
  • Over 1 million adults ages 65 and over


What are the Core Symptoms?

There are many biological, psychological, social, and spiritual (meaning your core values and morals) warning signs of addiction. These range from sudden changes in energy levels to negative changes in school or work. See below for more details about the warning signs of addiction.

What Causes Addiction Issues?

Brain health is the primary factor that determines your vulnerability to addiction. (See “Addicted Brains Work Differently” below for more on how the brain is involved in substance abuse.) Genetics and environmental factors also play a role in susceptibility to substance abuse. For example, if your parents or other family members abused drugs or alcohol, you are more likely to pick up those same behaviors. In addition, the age when a person first starts using drugs or alcohol makes a difference. Research shows that using substances as an adolescent dramatically increases the risk of addiction.

Addiction is strongly associated with mental health conditions, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI)

Why Choose Amen Clinics for Treating Drug and Alcohol Addiction?

Through our brain imaging work, we have identified 6 types of addicts. When it comes to treatment, one size does not fit all! What works for one person with a behavioral addiction may not work for another—or could even make your symptoms worse! Only about 1 in 5 people who have a substance use disorder receive the treatment they need, and of those who do seek help, an estimated 40-60% relapse. Optimizing your brain health based on your type can help you stay on track with a recovery program and reduce the risk of relapse.

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Addicted Brains Work Differently

The brain’s reward system is an intricate network of brain circuits and neurotransmitters that work together to drive you to seek out rewarding things (such as food and sex) but that regulate self-control so you don’t overdo it. In people with addictions, however, the brain’s drive circuits (the nucleus accumbens and deep limbic system) dominate, and the self-control circuit (the prefrontal cortex) doesn’t work hard enough. The result is a lack of self-restraint and for some people, addiction to substances like drugs and alcohol. Even if you suffer consequences from drinking too much or taking drugs, the dysfunction in your brain’s reward system pushes you to repeat the behavior over and over again.

Brain SPECT imaging can be a very powerful tool in the treatment of substance use disorders because it helps determine if there are co-existing conditions requiring treatment, increases treatment compliance, decreases shame and stigma, and shows that addiction is a brain disorder and not a personal weakness or character flaw. The good news is that the brains of substance abusers have the potential for some of the greatest improvement. The before-and-after scans often reveal a stunning level of recovery.

Healthy Brain Scan

Addicted Brain Scan

SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) is a nuclear medicine study that evaluates blood flow and activity in the brain. Basically, it shows three things: healthy activity, too little activity, or too much activity. The healthy surface brain SPECT scan on the left shows full, even symmetrical activity. The SPECT brain images of substance abusers (like the one on the right above) typically have an overall toxic appearance. They look less active, more shriveled, and have a scalloping effect. The holes do not represent actual physical holes in the brain, they represent areas that are low in blood flow and activity.

Ready to learn more? Speak to a care coordinator today!

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Warning Signs of Addiction

How can you know if you have a drug or alcohol dependency? There are many biological, psychological, social, and spiritual (meaning your core values and morals) warning signs of addiction.

Biological Signs & Symptoms

  • Sudden changes in activity or energy levels
  • Weight changes
  • A lack of personal hygiene
  • Red, watery, or glassy eyes
  • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
  • Feeling sick or hung over
  • Blacking out or forgetting what happened while under the influence
  • Using increasing amounts of the substance
  • Inability to quit without experiencing cravings or symptoms of withdrawal


Psychological Signs & Symptoms

  • Getting defensive whenever someone question you about your habits
  • Feelings of guilt about your substance use
  • Feeling anxious, depressed, or irritable when you’re unable to use the substance
  • Using the substance in response to feelings of sadness or to alleviate stress
  • Spending your day thinking about when you will have your next chance to use the substance
  • Feeling powerless to change your habit


Social Signs & Symptoms

  • Negative changes in work performance—calling in sick, showing up late, missing deadlines
  • Negative changes in school performance—skipping classes, being tardy, falling grades
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Neglecting responsibilities—not caring for kids or pets, forgetting to pay bills
  • Becoming friends with people who share the same addiction


Spiritual Signs & Symptoms

  • Breaking rules at home, work, or school
  • Lying to others
  • Stealing to fuel your addiction
  • Hiding things
  • Breaking promises and making excuses


“You Are Not Stuck With The Brain You Have.”

– Daniel G. Amen, M.D.


6 Types of Addicts

Not all addicts are alike. Based on our brain imaging work, we have identified 6 types of brain patterns associated with addiction.

Type 1: Compulsive Addicts

People with this type have trouble shifting their attention and tend to get stuck on obsessive thoughts of drinking or using drugs or some other substance. Regardless of what these people are addicted to, the thinking pattern and basic mechanism are the same. They tend to get locked into one course of action and have trouble seeing options. The most common brain SPECT finding in this type is increased anterior cingulate gyrus activity, which is most commonly caused by low brain serotonin levels.

Type 2: Impulsive Addicts

People with this type have trouble with impulse control even though they may start each day with the intention of refraining from drinking or using drugs. The most common SPECT finding for this type is low activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), likely due to low levels of dopamine.

The PFC acts as the brain’s supervisor and is involved in impulse control, judgment, planning, follow through, decision-making, and attention. When the PFC is underactive, people can be easily distracted, bored, inattentive, and impulsive. This type is often seen in conjunction with ADD/ADHD and is more common in males.

Type 3: Impulsive-compulsive

People with this type have a combination of both impulsive and compulsive features. The brain SPECT scans tend to show low activity in the prefrontal cortex (associated with impulsivity, likely due to low dopamine levels) and too much activity in the anterior cingulate gyrus (associated with compulsivity and low serotonin levels). This pattern is common in the children and grandchildren of alcoholics.

Type 4: Sad or Emotional Addicts

People with this type often use alcohol, marijuana, or painkillers to medicate underlying feelings of depression, boredom, or loneliness. This type is more commonly seen in women. The typical SPECT findings associated with this type are increased activity in the deep limbic system and low activity in the prefrontal cortex.

Type 5: Anxious Addicts

People with this type tend to use alcohol, marijuana, painkillers, or sleeping pills to medicate underlying feelings of anxiety, tension, nervousness, and fear. More commonly seen in women, this type tends to suffer physical symptoms of anxiety, such as muscle tension, headaches, stomachaches, and heart palpitations. People with this type tend to predict the worst and may be excessively shy or easily startled. The SPECT finding that correlates to this type is too much activity in the basal ganglia, likely due to low levels of GABA.

Type 6: Temporal Lobe Addicts

People with this type tend to have problems with temper, mood swings, learning, and memory. Abnormal activity in the temporal lobes is commonly due to past head injuries, infections, a lack of oxygen, exposure to environmental toxins (such as toxic mold), or it may be inherited. The SPECT findings typically show decreased activity in the temporal lobes, although sometimes increased activity is present.


“With A Better Brain Comes A Better Life”

– Daniel G. Amen, M.D.


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